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Cabin Fever

[whitespace] Chile-laced kimchi and fiery Korean dishes warm up winter's chill at Myung Dong

By Andrew X. Pham

AS AUTUMN RIDES INTO THE VALLEY on storm clouds, we start looking for those warming dishes that banish the chill. Fortunately, Myung Dong Tofu Cabin, the new Korean eatery in Santa Clara, serves up heat by the bowlful. This is the real deal, the first authentic Korean diner in suitsville, priced to keep patrons coming back year 'round. Banked by a row of blindfolded windows in an otherwise sunless room, the place feels subterranean, like a civilized cave, thick-columned and rattling with conversations in Korean. Dozens of inlaid lights perch above faux granite tables, a menu card at each.

Our waitress brings out eight dishes of various kimchi within seconds of our arrival: cucumber, cabbage, chile-pickled oysters and daikon, as well as bean sprouts, rice dumplings with sesame peanut paste, and a "Korean salad" of cabbage floating atop a cold vinegar-pickle broth. A stone pot brimming with rice follows. Without a word, we have amassed an impressive hoard of food.

Whether one is dining at noon or sunset, Myung Dong's 13-item menu offers the same fare at the same prices. Put to the challenge of tackling the symptoms of a cold, the combination soon tofu ($6.99), a chile soup of boiled tofu, beef and seafood, wins hankies down over chicken noodle soup. This sinus-clearing bowl of brine is crowded with tofu, which lends a quiet sweetness to the broth's tidepool tang. Unfortunately, the beef is too finely diced and the seafood amounts to one shrimp and two clams.

Also notable are the Korean B.B.Q. beef ($10.99) and spicy squid mixed with rice cake ($10.99), each large enough for a family of three. Delivered to the table sizzling and popping on iron skillets, the savory beef exudes beckoning fingers of aromatic steam. Coupled with rice, the meat makes a perfect mouthful. The squid is al dente and fire-engine hot.

After our stone rice bowl is empty, it disappears into the kitchen, only to return boiling with a clear liquid. Our waitress scrapes the toasted rice from the bottom and announces a magical meal-end drink: hot rice tea. The feast concluded, our chile-glistening brows are raised to find the table strewn end to end with tableware--plastic, glass, wood, stone, stainless steel, porcelain--a quirky comment on diversity. We are grateful we aren't washing dishes.

When cold fronts stampede, Myung Dong Tofu Cabin is the place to be. The fiery cuisine will have diners breaking out in a summer sweat--just the thing when the winds gnaw at the bones.

Myung Dong Tofu Cabin is open seven days, 10am to 10pm, and is located at 1484 Halford Ave., Santa Clara (408/246-1484).

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From the December 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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